As northern Syria attempts to adjust to life without US troops, which destabilized what was already considered a tenuous situation, the regional politics and security of the nation have been thrown into disarray with no sight of improvement. In addition to the civil war and refugee crisis, the nation has been an arena where world powers have been vying for a foothold in the Middle East for nearly a decade. With the abrupt shift in territorial control it has become apparent that due to its geographical location and political makeup, Syria is the subject of a custody battle with repercussions that extend far beyond its borders.
In March of 2011, when peaceful protesters were brutalized for anti-government graffiti, Syria joined the Arab Spring movement sweeping across the Middle East. But unlike neighboring countries, whose own uprisings were brief and relatively non-violent, Syria was pulled into an outright civil war. Later that year, when more citizens were killed and tortured, the sentiment reached a critical mass. What complicated things in Syria, however, was not a more violent response by the national government – the Lybian leader Muammar al-Gaddafi didn’t hesitate in unleashing his military onto his citizens calling for social reform – but the unique nationalities and religions that make up the Syrian population.
The kindling that sparked the civil war can be attributed to the large ethnic group known as the Kurds who, since the end of WWI when the winning side drew arbitrary borders that divided villages and townships, have remained nationless and spread across multiple countries including Iraq, Turkey, and Syria. The Kurds in Syria, who differ from those in Iraq and Turkey, became easy scapegoats when they formed a rebellion with the intent to not only fight back against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad but to fight for land control they felt was long overdue. However, when the initial Kurdish rebellion fractured into nearly a dozen smaller groups, they became pawns that allowed world powers to engage in a proxy war. Though it’s impossible to predict who might fill the vacuum that was recently created by the withdrawal of American troops, there are some key players who are strategically postured to make a move.
The war in Syria is comprised of three main groups which is why the situation is often a complex one to follow. After the first shots were fired, the Syrian government was immediately backed by long-time ally Iran, and eventually received military support from Russia. Saudi Arabia, who saw the rebellion as a means to counter Iran without starting a war on its own soil, sent funding and military arms to the Kurds. The US watched this localized fighting from afar until the decision was made to support Kurdish forces in an effort to defeat the newly emerged ISIS, or Islamic State, who threatened western civilization with extremist tactics such as chemical weapons. The third player to throw their hat into the proverbial ring was Turkey, who took the opportunity to wage war against their own Kurdish population whom they consider terrorists but who in reality have little connection to their Syrian counterparts.
The status quo has been broken and already a trend of uncertainty and chaos has emerged. With the US no longer aligned with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), Turkey was granted tacit permission to invade northern Syria. The Kurdish rebels are being forced to either flee the region or join Russian-backed Syrian forces to the south, leaving behind abandoned ISIS prisoners and further displacing overrun refugee camps. Although Russia may outwardly appear to be working against the Turkish government, recent delegations and official engagements suggest that an agreement might be in the works. It would make sense as Russia has a lot to gain by striking a peace deal between Turkey and Syria. Not only would it provide more access to the region through developed seaports but getting Turkey to move away from NATO would give Russia more status as a world power.
In addition to wondering what comes next for Syria, the world is also left with the question of why the US so abruptly decided to pull its troops out of areas it has been defending for years. Although this move seems sudden, there is a historical precedent that suggests it may have been long overdue. In 1947, barely two years after WWII ended, Britain found itself overextended and unable to effectively manage its global empire. Realizing it was financially impossible to maintain oversight of the region, the British government abdicated control to the US. Now, years later, America finds itself in a similar position, but without a viable candidate to hand things over to. While there is much to be said and plenty to criticize about how and why the decision was made, it’s hard to imagine there’s ever a ‘good time’ or ‘right way’ to exit the Middle Eastern crisis.
Although there’s no way to predict what Syria’s future looks like, there are a few variables the move has cemented into place. Firstly, the US has all but permanently severed ties with the Kurds and rebellion forces, making it unlikely the abandoned populace will place its trust another super-power anytime soon. Secondly, the Russian government’s influence will no doubt throw a spanner in the works, and stability in the region seems to be far fetched. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the ISIS and other extremist groups have threatened to resurge and create further instability in already unstable country. With the Turkish Kurds being forced to move south, and the Syrian Kurds involuntarily enlisted into Assad’s regime, they are prime recruits for any movement that can convince the world it is less extreme than the current governments of Syria, Russia, or Turkey.
Sadly, the one fact that has not changed is that more innocent lives will continue to be lost, and the world will continue to face the refugee crises. European countries who amended immigration policy in response to the crisis have maxed out their ability to assimilate them into society. Without proper management and oversight, this could be the set-up for history to repeat itself. A large population of disenfranchised individuals who feel their land and their rights have been taken away from them is the definition of what started the Arab Spring. Whether with words or with weapons, the fighting will continue until a nation (or collective of nations) with direct experience and understanding of the problem, as well as a personal stake in the availability of oil, steps in with the intention of eventually stepping out.